The Conscious Competence Model of Learning

Learning any new skill, whether martial arts related or otherwise, can be a very frustrating experience for many people. It’s a common occurrence to hear beginner students say “I’ll never be able to do this”, “I’m not good enough”, or “It’s too hard!”

Many people view failure or making mistakes with negative emotions. Ironically mistakes are a vital step in the learning process. Far too often people do not see their failures as stepping stones to mastery.

Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, famously said “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

Understanding how process of learning can help you stay focused on learning the new skill, and ultimately help you reach mastery.

The Conscious Competence Model of Learning defines four psychological states in the process of beginning to learn a new skill through to mastery.

Learning Cycle


Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence

“You don’t know that you don’t know how to do something”

In this stage you are unaware or do not know how to do something. This may be because no situations have arisen to demand the skill. You may also deny the usefulness of the new skill.

To progress from this stage of learning you must recognize your own incompetence and accept the value of the new skill.

The length of time an you stay in this stage will depend on the strength of the stimulus and motivation to learn a new skill.

Stage 2: Conscious incompetence

“You know that you don’t know how to do something”

In this stage you are aware you do not know how to do something and begins to recognize it would be valuable to learn this new skills.

The making of mistakes is an integral part of the learning process at this stage. Through continued practice you will refine the new skill and progress to stage 3.

Stage 3: Conscious competence

“You know how to do something but it takes effort”

In this stage you know how to do something and can demonstrate the skill but it requires concentration and effort. You may need to break down the new skill into steps or detailed processes.

There is often heavy conscious involvement involved executing the new skill. As your competence increase the frequency of mistakes will begin to decline.

Stage 4: Unconscious competence

“You know how to so something instinctively”

This is the final stage of learning a new skill. It is reached when you have practiced the skill so much it has become “second nature” and you can perform it with ease.

As a result, you can also perform this skill while executing another task and you will be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.


The goal for all martial artist should be unconscious competence in your techniques. This is achievable for anyone through sustained practice.

In Bruce Lee’s famous book the “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” he refers to the concept of thought in – action. This is the same as Unconscious competence, in which you have mastered a technique so fully that you are performing it as you realise you should be preforming it.

The next time you step on the mat or attempt learn a new skill do not become frustrated by making mistakes, or failing at your first attempt. Instead view it as a vital step on your way to mastery.

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